IRAP’S VC Pitchfest and What It Means for Ottawa

Below is a guest post by friend and local entrepreneur Kyle McInnes, co-founder of Pretzil, who was a participant at the IRAP “PitchFest”.  The views are entirely his own and I exercised massive restraint by not changing some of his comments (but couldn’t resist the picture).

The IRAP pitchfest happened recently on Wednesday, February 8th at the new OCRI (now “Invest Ottawa”) building at 80 Aberdeen in Little Italy. I thought I’d summarise the event for those that couldn’t make it and provide a little insight into how I think the event could be improved.

When Scott first blogged on StartupOttawa about IRAP’s VC pitchfest, it obviously touched a nerve with IRAP and the Invest Ottawa crowd. During the whole application process and through the event, I probably heard it indirectly and directly referenced at least a few times. The post brings up some really valid criticisms of the pitchfest idea including the fact that there was zero transparency on the part of IRAP as to how they went about selecting companies to present. Scott’s criticism that IRAP’s mandate doesn’t include this kind of work is something I’d have to disagree with. IRAP’s explicit mandate is to “Help you grow stronger, grow faster, grow bigger through innovation and technology.” I would argue that IRAP bringing VCs to Ottawa is a clear way to fulfill its mandate.

Overall, the VC pitchfest was a fun event, but I take issue with the way it was managed. It was clear that IRAP is still figuring out how best to connect companies and investors, and as someone who went through the whole event, I can think of a few ways that it could have been run more effectively.

1. Selecting Companies – At the event, I spoke to one of the VCs in attendance to get his impression on the selection process. The VC told me that he hadn’t even been asked by IRAP or Invest Ottawa as to what kind of companies his fund was looking to invest in. Personally, I think it would have made far more sense for IRAP to ask the VCs what kind of companies they want to invest in, and then search Ottawa to connect those companies to the interested VCs.

2. Focus – The IRAP pitchfest had a wide variety of companies pitching. The pitchfest included companies pitching everything from intelligent video hardware to an online wedding registry service. It’s great to see the breadth of companies and talent here in Ottawa, but companies are more likely to get funded if you focus on an industry. IRAP needs to put hardware companies in front of investors who fund hardware companies and mobile companies in front of mobile-focused funds. This will surely increase the likelihood of someone getting funded.

3. Keep it private – The whole event was a little too public. Companies were expected to pitch to a group of investors in a room filled with other startups, IRAP representatives and Invest Ottawa employees. I’ve heard from numerous startups that have raised money that the most effective use of your time is to carefully handpick investors and meet with them to set milestones and expectations. Openly pitching to a group of investors that are possibly interested feels too much like a “spray and pray” versus “sniping” approach.

4. Feedback – IRAP was very eager to help the startups perfect their pitch. During the process, I had to do 2 mock presentations in front of a small IRAP committee as well as an IRAP rep came to my office before pitch day for a private consultation. It’s good to see IRAP so keen on helping but I would have liked to get feedback from real entrepreneurs rather than a panel of government employees. IRAP did a great job of bringing VCs into this pitchfest and it would have been helpful for them to bring in entrepreneurs with experience raising money to help the startups who were about to pitch.

The IRAP pitchfest addressed a clear issue that Ottawa has a hard time attracting VC funds to the city. IRAP proved that it can entice those investors to come to the city, but we need to make sure these investors are meeting talent they’re looking for. In the end, IRAP managed to bring almost a billion dollars to the city. IRAP should continue to work to bring this type of money to the city, but make better use of everyone’s time. For those looking to raise money, the following funds were present and worth researching:

Tandem Expansion Fund ($300M)
SummerHill Venture Partners ($200M)
Real Ventures ($25M)
Ontario Investment Accelerator Fund ($30M)
OMERS Ventures ($180M)
Extreme Venture Partners ($50)
BDC ($190M)

The next time Invest Ottawa and IRAP get involved in bringing companies and investors together, I’d like to see them connect investors and companies in a more structured, transparent and focused approach. The most important thing is that somebody gets funded, because it will send a message to other funds that Ottawa talent can’t be ignored. With enough investments, hopefully these funds will open Ottawa offices and create a strong investment community. That’s when we all win.

By Scott Annan

4 Responses to “IRAP’S VC Pitchfest and What It Means for Ottawa”

  1. Hana  on February 10th, 2012

    Also present were Growthworks, Genwealth and EDC.

    Agree re: focus. A little research into what each fund was specifically looking for and matching with industry and funding requirements would have been helpful.

  2. kylemcinnes  on February 10th, 2012

    @Hana – Good call. Forgot to mention those funds. That grows the potential funding pool pretty significantly.

  3. Bruce Lazenby  on February 10th, 2012

    Thanks Scott for this thoughtful piece. You raise some good points that we can build on. FYI – we know these VC’s well and we know their sweet spots – so we did try and line up some companies with their interests. Of course no two VC’s have the same interests so that is a problem with this format.

    One major objective of the event was to get the out-of-town VC’s to put Ottawa back on their radar – we have been off for a while. They tell me they were really impressed with what they saw and that they will be back. Good job presenters.

    We are already designing a program for March/April with OMERS.

    You are dead right that the best way to actually do a deal is one-on-one with the VC/Investor. Nobody is going to get a check at an event like this – but if the presenting companies aggressively go back to the VC’s they met – maybe.

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